How Microsoft quietly built the city of the future

This is the first of a three-part series. Part 2 can be found here and Part 3 here.

"This is my office,” says the sticker on Darrell Smith’s laptop, and it is.

With his “office” tucked under his arm, Microsoft’s director of facilities and energy is constantly shuttling between meetings all over the company’s 500-acre, wooded campus in Redmond, Wash.

But Smith always returns to one unique place.

The Redmond Operations Center (often called “the ROC”) is in a drab, nondescript office park. Inside is something unique – a new state-of-the-art “brain” that is transforming Microsoft’s 125-building, 41,664-employee headquarters into one of the smartest corporate campuses in the world.

Smith and his team have been working for more than three years to unify an incongruent network of sensors from different eras (think several decades of different sensor technology and dozens of manufacturers). The software that he and his team built strings together thousands of building sensors that track things such as heaters, air conditioners, fans and lights – harvesting billions of data points per week. That data has given the team deep insights, enabled better diagnostics and has allowed for far more intelligent decision making. A test run of the program in 13 Microsoft buildings has provided staggering results – not only has Microsoft saved energy and millions in maintenance and utility costs, but the company also is hyper-aware of the way its buildings perform.

It’s no small thing – whether a damper is stuck in Building 75 or a valve is leaky in Studio H – that engineers can now detect (and often fix with a few clicks) even the tiniest issues from their high-tech dashboard at their desks in the ROC rather than having to jump into a truck to go find and fix the problem in person.

If the facility management world were Saturday morning cartoons, Smith and his team have effectively flipped the channel from “The Flintstones” to “The Jetsons.” Instead of using stone-age rocks and hammers to keep out the cold, Smith’s team invented a solution that relies on data to find and fix problems instantly and remotely.

“Give me a little data and I’ll tell you a little,” he says. “Give me a lot of data and I’ll save the world.”

Smith joined Microsoft in December 2008. His previous work managing data centers for Cisco had given him big ideas about how buildings could be smarter and more efficient, but until he came to Microsoft he lacked the technical resources to bring them to life. What he found at Microsoft was support for these ideas on all sides – from his boss to a handful of savvy facilities engineers. They all knew buildings could be smarter, and together they would find a way to make it so.

Smith has a finger-tapping restlessness that prevents him from sitting through an entire movie. His intensity comes paired with the enthusiastic, genial demeanor of a favorite bartender or a softball buddy (and indeed, he does play first base for a company softball team, the Microsoft Misfits).

Ever punctual and an early riser, Smith lives near Microsoft headquarters and has taken to spending a few quiet hours at his desk on Sundays.

“I call it my den because I live a mile away. I come here, I make coffee, I have the building to myself,” Smith says.

His family and the people who know him best understand. Smart buildings are his passion, and everything in his life has been moving toward finding ways for companies the world over to get smarter about managing their buildings (which will help them save money and reduce their energy use).

“Smart buildings will become smart cities,” Smith says. “And smart cities will change everything.”

Next page: 88 acres in a one-stoplight town